Is there anything funny about papyri? Part I

By David Ratzan

Mathias Hanses, a colleague of mine in the Department of Classics and Mediterranean Studies at Penn State, recently asked me if I could come give a lecture for one of his classes.

I said, "Of course! What's the class?" "Humor in the ancient world. Can you come speak about humor in the papyri?"

I definitely felt that the joke was on me: what could be funny about papyri? That's like giving a class on the humor of credit card receipts or bus transfers.

But I told him I would give it some thought. In the end, I came up with a few interesting angles. Thanks to a generous resource grant from the Classical Association for the Atlantic States, I was able to make the trip out to State College, PA last week to share some of my soundings into the papyrological archaeology of ancient humor and laughter.

Comedy, of course, is a mainstay of philological research. Recently there has also been a good deal written about laughter in the ancient world. Stephen Halliwell's Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Mary Beard's Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (UC Press, 2014) both come to mind. Neither of these works, however, attempts to understand the evidence for ancient humor that survives from what one might call a provincial perspective. That is, neither asks what it meant for the thousands of Hellenistic and hellenized Roman readers to laugh at (or with) Thersites in Homer, the potty-mouthed Athenians of Aristophanes, or Menander's awkward situational comedy. This is an important question to ask, since hellenized provincials (for lack of a better term) over time increasingly constituted the bulk of those who learned, read, performed, commissioned, copied, taught, and even wrote comedic texts; and they, of course, came from cultures with their own comedic traditions or senses of humor. This is, in fact, a question we may ask directly of Egypt, precisely because so many different texts and different types of text remain. A quick glance at Patrick Houlihan's Wit and Humor in Ancient Egypt (Rubicon, 2001) impresses one with both the quantity of material to study in this regard and the real possibility that a distinctly Egyptian sense of humor persisted beyond Nectanebo II, the last of the Egyptian pharaohs. 

My presentation explored this possibility from three vantage points. First, I attempted to reconstruct the relative frequency of literary comedic texts surviving in Egypt, concentrating on those Mathias had put on the syllabus. The aim was to see if from this analysis we could discern the relative popularity in ancient Egypt of the texts the students were reading, and if so, what preferences might underlie the distribution of ancient manuscripts, and further how those preferences compared to their own.

My second lens was epistolary. We can often draw a direct line between the epistolary practice of Greek and Roman elites, as preserved in the literary collections of Cicero, Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Libanius, and Symmachus, and that evident in documentary letters. For instance, in both one finds similar genres (e.g., letters of recommendation) and a continuum of conventions (e.g., in letters of consolation). Humor was an important element in the complex dance of elite letter writing; but can we find a similar interest in humor in our documentary letters from Egypt? Put more broadly still, what was the quality and role of humor or laughter in our documentary letters from the Roman world?

My third and final lens was an attempt to find properly papyrological humor, or humor of the sort that could be found only in the papyri. This, in the end, is the realm of the accidentally-preserved inside joke, frozen somehow, somewhere, on a piece of papyrus the writer had no reason to believe would survive the moment. One can even wonder if some of these jokes were purely private in nature, a Facebook page for one. 

In the next few posts I will expand on each of these perspectives into the humor (or lack thereof) in the papyri, beginning, as befits a librarian, with what survives of ancient literary humor from Egypt.